1970s Soviet Venus space probe may fall back to Earth this year

In late March 1972, the Soviet Union launched a space probe called Kosmos 482 that was intended to explore Venus, but was unable to escape low Earth orbit. The failed Venus probe has been circling Earth in the decades since, but will eventually fall back to the planet's surface. Past estimates put the probe's descent as late as 2025, but a new look at the spacecraft reveals it may arrive as soon as this year.

Kosmos 482 was operated by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and designed to be very durable. Experts have stated that the Venus probe is likely to survive re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, but it's impossible to determine when that crash landing will happen. Some past estimates have put the re-entry as late as the year 2025, while others have earlier estimates at around 2023.

The component stuck in space is the Kosmos 482 entry capsule, which was designed to handle intense heat and pressure. Satellite watcher Thomas Dorman recently told Space.com that he captured a passing of Kosmos 482; flaring was observed, indicating that some of the upper spacecraft bus may still be intact on the probe.

Dorman estimates the Soviet probe will fall back to Earth either later in 2019 or some time by mid-2020. However, he cautioned that "predicting its decay is as much of an art [as] it is science. The other issue is, nobody can forecast solar activity for the next year, which could affect the decay time."

The estimate isn't a guarantee, of course, and it could be a couple or more years before the Venus probe finally gets pulled down by Earth's gravity. Questions remain over where the Soviet probe will land, assuming it does survive re-entry, but the odds are high that it will crash into the ocean.